DOING BRITISH THINGS IN FRANCE
By B A Boyle
There are plenty of “British” things to do in France but you may have to be a little more imaginative as far as entertainment goes. A nice meal with a good bottle of wine is quite straightforward, but the stylish restaurant, even if there is one near you, may not necessarily be the best. Try that neat little local restaurant instead . You may be surprised to find that the owner provides more than just a “plat de jour”. He is often a magnificent, well-trained chef who can create great dishes with fresh local produce; vegetables and herbs from his own garden, fruit from his neighbour and mushrooms from the field, He would love to win a Michelin star but his tiny restaurant in an unfashionable locality will never be a contender. Just as well - the last thing you want is an invasion of tourists or gourmets who would change this simple ambiance not to mention the price.
If you’re slightly more gregarious why not join a club. As the population in some small towns and villages dwindles, the locals are delighted for you to swell their numbers in the yoga class, cycle runs or even the senior citizens club. Don’t be surprised if you experience the “hard sell”. They are likely to ignore a foreigner’s natural reticence, the language barrier, and, in the case of senior citizens, protests that you are barely 50 years of age. In fact, the only membership criteria seem to be that you’ve given up work. The organisers of the old folks’ Christmas party in our village, noting our reluctance to join, offered us temporary membership for the festive season. Even though we brought down the average age considerably, we were accepted with celebrity-like status. Our fellow revellers wanted to know how we managed to look so young. Our claim that we were in fact “young” was met with cynical smiles and disbelieving shrugs. Not much of a compliment I think!. However, as with most of these “dos” the meal was superb. Countless courses of food prepared by the local restaurateur were accompanied by fantastic wines to suit each delicious dish. Five hours later we were treated to a karaoke-style concert of songs from the past. Interesting, entertaining and shamefully cheap.
In summer, a similar but faster repas can be had at the many fetes. Each village seems to have its own version of a farmer’s market, display of ancient and modern crafts and often, a wonderfully British thing, the car boot sale. For two hours at lunchtime though activities cease so that you may join the stall holders and regulars for a fantastic mini banquet served to hungry crowds on trestle tables. If you haven’t booked beforehand, you may have to settle for beer and a sandwich in the bar with other disappointed visitors.
Of course, there are other British things to do in France. Do you remember week-ends in the UK? If you’re still addicted to visits to the DIY store then nobody here will prevent you from continuing, except that is, on Sunday, when all such shops are closed, oh, and sometimes on a Monday too. However, you will be pleased to read that more and more retail parks are springing up everywhere and with them the number of B&Q look-alikes. If you have satellite TV you can still watch the house makeover programmes and then spend the rest of those lovely sunny days painting your walls magnolia, sticking on paper borders or laying a laminate wooden floor. Remember though, it will be impossible to impress your French neighbours when their own floors are solid wood parquet and the most fashionable décor is still to paper walls, ceiling and even doors in the same garishly patterned paper.
After the DIY you might fancy a day at the races. The legendary courses are mostly around Paris but elsewhere you will probably not be far from a hippodrome and a great day out. The French love racing; it’s for all the family. Often, small rural courses overlook a beautiful chateau or run alongside a picturesque river, even though racing will probably take place on only two or three occasions each year, always on a Sunday or public holiday.
The action begins around midday for those who book a trestle table meal. Later arrivals bring picnic tables, chairs and boxes or baskets full of their own goodies and head for the shade of the trees. Those arriving just before the first race, usually about 2.30pm, go straight to the temporary bar for a liquid lunch and then search out whatever shade is left in the quaint little stand.
Placing a bet is easy. You don’t have to be rich either. There are no bookies and the minimum amount is 2 euros. You place your bet with the pari mutual (like the English tote), where a temporary screen shows you how the odds are changing.
“Le cinq, deux euros gagnant, s’il vous plait”, will have you betting two euros on horse number five to win. For some reason, horse number one is l’as. I have problems saying this, consequently I never bet on this horse, even if it’s a dead cert!
It’s just as easy to bet that your horse will not win- but it must be placed -hence “place” instead of “gagnant” If you are a really serious punter then there are more complicated, costly and potentially lucrative bets to make. In any event, don’t be surprised to find a horse owned by Sheik Mohammed or even the Aga Khan running alongside horses from the local trainer.
After such a busy day you may be tempted by the local thé dansant, (tea dance) or danse de diner, (dinner dance) at the salle des fetes, (village hall). If the waltz or foxtrot is beyond your capabilities then don’t worry. The French do a wonderful dance most of the time, to apparently the same or similar tune, which goes something like this: hold your partner as you would to a waltz, shuffle a bit to the right, then shuffle to the left. Turn your partner around, shuffle some more in any direction you wish, then repeat the same , or different shuffles again. It’s a bit like dog-gem cars on the dance floor but everyone attempts to look professional and avoid doing each other a serious injury. What’s more they thoroughly enjoy themselves.
You may also find that your local bar owner employs a live band from time to time for your entertainment. What luck for us to find a nostalgia group had been booked to appear in town. It’s great to hear the sounds of the sixties again even if it’s sung with a French accent. The bar was packed; feet were tapping and everyone was having a great time until suddenly tables and chairs in front of the group were pushed to one side by intruders to provide a makeshift dance floor. The golden skinned medallion men strutted flamboyantly as they were joined by their mini skirted “mrs” who shook and shimmied in front of the bemused young musicians and the disbelieving audience. “Mon Dieu” cried someone, “Is this the Costa del Sol?”
“Quick”, shouted someone else, “grab your coats, if we hurry, we’ll just be in time for the last shuffle at the salle des fete!”
Someone please prevent us from doing British things TO France.
About the Author
Barbara & Kevan Boyle have owned several properties in France over a period of nearly 20 years.